Sunrise Pizza

"Slice by slice, speaking became much easier."

It was a midnight flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Minnesota, set to take off at exactly midnight on a Friday. After three "one-hour" delays, I was told the flight had been overbooked, and I was bumped to the 6:00 a.m. flight. Normally, I was not a complainer, but after twelve consecutive hours of traveling, and with stale granola as my only nourishment, no amount of free air points could ease my irritation.



I was directed to a small waiting room at a far corner of the airport. The phone signal was horrendous and there was no Wi-Fi. The tiny TV on the wall was streaming the same old depressing news.

I wasn't alone in those three hours of murky near-dawn. There were six of us: a quiet woman in a hijab, her small daughter who seemed unable to stay still, a heavyset man with stern eyebrows, a man in a startlingly pink suit, and a teenager whose music I could distinctly hear through her headphones.

If three hours seemed long on paper, it felt even longer surrounded by these strangers, who were just as disgruntled as I was. Thirty minutes had not passed, and I was ready to renounce my morning flight, book an overnight hotel, and take my chances with the airlines another day. I was done with hope.

A tiny voice suddenly fractured the stillness. "Mama, I'm hungry."

It was the little girl. Two half-eaten, unappetizing cereal bars lay abandoned next to her stuffed pony. The mother whispered something to her, placing a finger to her lips. The little girl was desperately trying to keep her voice quiet, but her words were distinct in the muted room. "But I have three dollars, Mama!"

"I got cash."

The gruff voice belonged to the old man with severe eyebrows — underneath which, I noticed, were soft eyes fixed on the girl. "How's pizza sound? My granddaughters can't go a day without it."

"Hey, I'm hungry, too." The man in the extremely pink suit smiled at the mother, who had begun to shake her head. "And I've got a few dollars lying around."

"I've been living on granola," I admitted, pulling out my own purse. "Count me in."

The teenager pulled off her headphones and said, "Extra cheese, please."

In fifteen minutes, two boxes of extra-cheese pizza arrived like the sunrise. I devoured my first slice in an embarrassingly short time and quickly reached for another.

The teenager mentioned how there was a serious lack of good, greasy pizza in Japan. "That's where I was this past week," she said, "to participate in a science competition." She told us of her keen interest in mental health, in the sicknesses that we have yet to understand. "Alzheimer's is the most interesting," she said. "There isn't a cure yet, but I know I'll find it."

The old man had his eyes downcast. "You'd better," he murmured. "My wife hasn't recognized me in years."

It was a solemn quiet until the little girl patted the man's arm. "Don't worry. When I grow up, I'll find a cure, too." Then she paused. "Or maybe I'll train horses."

She seemed perplexed when we all broke into giggles.

Slice by slice, speaking became much easier. We spoke of the ridiculous snow Minnesota had gotten. We discussed the increasing prominence of technology in our lives. We criticized the color choice of Princess Sparkle Pony's mane. "I hate pink," the little girl declared. Her eyes widened a second later, shooting to the man in the neon suit. "No offense!"

The man just laughed. "I love pink!" His laughter slowly fell away. "Not sure if Ryan's parents do."

"Who's Ryan?" I asked.

The smile returned to his lips. "My fiancé," he said. "I'm meeting his parents this weekend, but… they're not too happy about me."

The old man reached forward to squeeze a pink shoulder pad. "If they love their son, they'll learn to be happy."

The smile didn't leave the young man's face after that.

The woman in the hijab told us that she was on her way to visit her husband. "I travel a lot," she said. "I get many air points! Especially today, since I offered to take the next flight."

The teenager gasped. "You offered?"

The woman said, "Maybe someone needed the seats more than we did."

"Are you a saint?" the teenager asked.

The woman laughed. "No, I am a doctor."

The teenager's eyes widened. "That is so cool. Wait—aren't you going to tell me that loud music is bad for my ears?"

The woman smiled. "I figured you already know."

"I do," she admitted. "Still, I like it. It helps me drown out the world."

"Why do you want that?" I asked.

The teenager glanced at the TV. I'd forgotten it was there. It was blasting clips of bloodied children waiting to be treated in a makeshift medical center. Then, it cut to armed men peering through smoke.

The teenager said quietly, "Why wouldn't you?"

"Because, despite everything, hope defeats fear." It was the mother speaking. Her voice was quiet, but her eyes held fire. "No matter what happens, you can't forget that."

The old man murmured, "Hope begets happiness."

The teenager shook her head. "It's more complicated than that. I mean, what is happiness? It's not easy to define."

"Yes, it is!" The little girl's voice turned our heads. "Happiness is when it's a snow day, and Mama lets me eat cereal in front of the TV."

We couldn't stop roaring at that. Still chuckling, the teenager said, "Maybe it's not so complicated, after all."

Somehow, without really realizing it, the hours disappeared—as did the strangers around me. The old man with the strict eyebrows became Jim, a grandfather anxious to reach his granddaughters. The quiet mother with the hijab was Mina, a gynecologist with the most vibrant four-year old I had ever met. The newly engaged Ming had a smile as bright as his suit. The sullen teenager was the incredibly brilliant Ruth, and I knew that it wouldn't be long before she was making headlines.

We were no longer strangers connected by only a delayed flight to Minnesota. We were inventors, healers, dreamers, and lovers, Americans who respected each other and embraced our differences.

Almost too soon, it was time to board. We folded our pizza boxes, gathered our belongings, and pulled out our tickets. We knew it was time to say goodbye.

The little girl turned to me. She said, "Wait a minute, miss! What do you do?"

I smiled at the girl. "I'm a writer," I said. "I write about the things that give me hope."

This story is from Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America: 101 Stories about the True Spirit of Our Country  © 2017 Chicken Soup for the Soul, LLC. All rights reserved.

Cover image via Prostock-studio I Shutterstock


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